Since early antiquity, as well as in contemporary times, symbols and symbolism have been, and are, ways of expression of the human spirit, because their existence is not regulated by external facts, i.e. historical ones, but amounts to a kind of permanent necessity for human beings. Symbols have not been extinct as a mode of thinking and contemplating in any historical period of humanity but only permanently put aside, remaining deeply in human consciousness. According to Mircea Eliade (Treatise on the History of the Ancient Religions), among ancient peoples symbolism did not only refer to spiritual, transcendental realities because in their perception the spiritual was not separated from the material, as these two were considered complementary.
Theosophy teaches that the Divine is an Abstract, Invisible, and Ineffable Principle; a Universal Principle, the root of all, from which everything emanates and to which everything returns when the grand cycle of existence ends. Therefore, what could be the purpose of the religious artifacts of antiquity and our more recent epochs, and why are they considered necessary by some? Could they be symbols of the Divine? Why is religious art using human forms for the icons or so-called ‘hagiographies’ (i.e. paintings with images of Christian Saints, Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, Archangels etc.), the frescoes, and the statues?
It is known that our brain perceives the visible world via the external appearance and the impressions emitted by the physical bodies and the various objects. These stimulate our sight and thus thoughts and images are formed and imprinted in our mind, and when the relative images or thoughts are repeatedly formed in it, they produce a permanent presentation of the idea concerned. Analogy co-operates with symbolism, as does universal rapport. Therefore, the illustration of the Divine in icons, frescoes, and statues imprints the mind with Higher Ideas. This way, there is always an image or a thought ready for use in our mind, which can help us to contemplate or meditate and feel the divine spark in us, the spiritual Ego – our Higher Self, who knows but cannot transmit this knowledge to our lower self as it is obstructed by the limitations of the material realms.
Referring to ancient religious art, the Neoplatonist Porphyry points out (Against Christians IV 20, p. 129):
“Our ancestors sculpted statues and built temples as reminders of the existence of the gods, and for those who visit them to be able to devote some of their time to contemplate or pray to the god with pure heart.”
It seems that in ancient times, as well as in more recent ones, the non-initiated needed – and still need up to a point – the personalization of transcendental powers and ideas, in whatever form these might have acquired, or still do today, according to the different cultures and religions, as many people had not, and have not yet, developed the capability of conceiving the Ineffable and the Invisible in other ways. So, the Initiates of the Mystery Schools decided to illustrate Divine Ideas in statues and icons using mainly the human body as a template, since, as Porphyry says (Ibid, p. 129):
“It is absolutely natural for the statues to have the human form, because the human species is considered as the most beautiful of all god’s creatures and an image of the god.”
In the same spirit are the words of the Greek philosopher and historian Dion Chrysostom, who writes (On Kingdoms A 1, p. 12):
“No one, whether a sculptor or a painter, is capable to illustrate the Nous (Nους) and the Prudence (Φρόνηση), because these are invisible powers and entirely unknown to all. Therefore, the human form is used … which we consider as the vehicle of Prudence and the Logos (Λόγος, Word) and we relate it with the god, because there is not a template more appropriate than this. Wishing to illustrate the unseen and non-virtual by the seen and depicted, we use the human form as a symbol of that power.”
The artists who were summoned by the Initiates and worked on wood, stone, clay, marble, mosaics, and frescos, produced various artifacts some of which might very well be considered as more magnificent than more recent ones, and bearing a beauty which cannot be seen in contemporary art. They show accurate knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, anatomy, the spiritual development, and the wisdom which prevailed in the Schools of Mystery. Often – but not always – those artifacts were made under the guidance and the supervision of the Initiates. They present a mystery language capable of transmitting spiritual information directly to the subconscious of those who stand in front of them, provided they are pure and open in heart and mind.
The symbolism and the deeper meaning of these illustrations were always explained during the ancient Mysteries, as this teaching was part of the initiating process and also a first apocalypse of the true, occult, and particular energy of every depicted deity or divine idea. The purpose of it was to guide the mind and to present the most abstract and inner ideas to the initiated via images which provoke an aesthetic emotion. However, it was not possible to reveal the truth to the profane, since – to use the well-known biblical words – it would be as if “casting pearls before swine” that would crush them and then turn against those who threw them. In ancient Greece, the Eleusinian Mysteries were divided into the lesser ones for the non-initiated and the grand ones for the Initiates. Also, Pythagoras’s disciples were required to take the sacred oath to never reveal to the ignorant the truths which were taught in his Mystery School. And again, the Gnostics and even Christ used to talk to the masses in parables, revealing the truth only to their disciples.
The artifacts were displayed to the uninitiated to help them approach the meaning of the Divine Order according to their own individual capability, since, as the Neoplatonist Porphyry once more points out (Against the Christians IV 20, p. 127):
“Those who pay due homage to the gods, do not believe that the god can exist within the wood or the stone or the copper that statues are made of, nor that if a part of a statue were broken off, this would diminish the god’s power.“
In more recent ages, religious icons or hagiographies, frescoes, statues, and other forms of presentation and drawings were, and still are, used for the same purpose. The statues and the frescos of the ancient gods, as well as those of the Renaissance and the Byzantine art, i.e. the icons we see in churches, temples and monasteries, and especially the paintings of Domenico Theotocopuli – the well-known El Greco – or other forms of art like the ones we find in mosques, all are illustrations of higher cosmic Archetypes depicting and emitting the virtue of the Archetype. They are a reminiscence and a reminder of the deification of highly developed souls, and they can become “portals” to the spiritual world. Most of them are exhibited mainly in sacred and consecrated places and can be considered as silent, sacramental hymns to Divine Ideas. They can also become a way of spiritual connection between the human and the divine worlds, while those who know and can “read” the iconic language are capable of deriving spiritual knowledge of the highest importance, provided they are open to it.
Religious artifacts emit such beauty, that one might feel it has descended from the heaven world to this one inspiring the artist. They all speak to our psyche, to the soul of the sensitive person producing in us the feeling which is known as “bliss”. The Divine inspires different peoples taking the specific form which best suits their culture or level of spiritual development. For example, the ancient Greeks praised beauty and youth, and these elements were used widely in ancient Greek art, even though archeological excavations in certain areas of Greece show that the figurines of the gods in the pre-Hellenic period were not so elegant. The dark skinned peoples of Africa, Central and South America worship the Black Madonna and the Black Jesus, while in ancient Egypt the Black Athena was worshiped along with the other gods of the Egyptian Pantheon. In the Far East, the statues and frescos of their deities as well as those of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas have facial characteristics like those of the peoples belonging to the Eastern nations.
Designs like the Tao symbol, the Swastika, the Mandala, the Wheel and others were, and are, also used to decorate temples, sacred places, and monasteries of East Asian cultures, while the Cross is the main element which decorates Christian churches and monasteries, and its form was used in the architecture of churches built according to the Byzantine style. In Muslim mosques where illustrations of the Divine in human form is not permitted, geometric shapes and flowery designs decorate the walls. According to the Sufis, these function as points of prayer and meditation for the common faithful, while for those who know the hidden symbolism, they are only a veil of the Divine. The North and South American Indians use images from the animal kingdom in their houses and temples, and on other items too, as did the ancient Greeks in their everyday life on pottery etc. Also, round shapes and several forms of the cross, which is said to be the most ancient of all shapes, were used in North and South American Indian cultures to illustrate the powers of the Unseen.
The religious mode of painting and sculpture, especially in older times, could only be compared to the music which transcends and supervenes all words and meaning. Undoubtedly, when standing in front of such a statue, a fresco, or an icon illustrating a Divine Idea, we feel small and insignificant. However, if we allow ourselves to be connected to the deep symbolism they depict, it will be like entering the spiritual waters of our Higher Self, our inner being, and perhaps something even higher. On the other hand, those who are driven by blind faith and interpret what they see as literal and become attached to the external form, unconsciously degrade the inner meaning in their mind and, unfortunately, if one tells them the actual truth, they accuse that person of being atheistic, paranoiac and deeply insulting. The literal interpretation of icons was the reason for the religious war on icons which took place during the Byzantine days, between those who were against the illustration of the Divine on frescoes etc., and those who were in favor of them. In support of the latter, the monk Nikiforos had written in Major plea in favor of the Sanctuary (The Cosmological Symbolism in the Architecture of the Byzantine Church):
“The icons express the silence of the Divine, they emit the ineffable mystery which transcends the Being. In their silence, they incessantly praise Goodness…”
Theosophy teaches that praying or meditating is a mystery, an occult process, which can take us to a “spiritual transmutation” and become for us a “philosopher’s stone, or that which transmutes lead to gold”. However, these words quoted from H. P. Blavatsky do not refer to a prayer in blind faith with so many words repeated externally as a petition to an unknown God (The Key to Theosophy, p. 66, 68), “to an extra-cosmic and therefore finite god”, but to the “Father who is secret”, as given by Matthew (vi. v. 6).
“Grant us our postulate that God is a universally diffused and infinite principle”, she says, (ibid, p. 67), “and how can man alone escape from being soaked through by, and in, the Deity?”
Theosophy characterizes blind faith as a human weakness and teaches that true faith is the Gnosis (Γνώσις), the Knowledge which Pythagoras explained as the “gnosis of the gods”, i.e. to know things as they are. The true faith is “the pistis of the Greeks, ‘based in knowledge’, whether supplied by the evidence of the physical or the spiritual senses”, as Blavatsky says (ibid., p. 220) because “between faith on authority and faith on one’s spiritual intuition there is a very great difference”.
Religious icons or hagiographies, frescoes, and statues can be considered as symbols and they are certainly such. A symbol reveals the essential unity of many levels of reality and can present an idea which is unapproachable by the finite mind through the ordinary means of knowledge. Symbols can become “openings” to other worlds and modes of communication between the various planes, enabling one to travel on all levels of reality. Universal rapport can make a symbol function as a mirror of the illustrated image. It can reflect not only the form we see but, somehow, it can also capture the essence of the idea as do the paintings of El Greco.
At this point, I will ask once more: What could be the purpose of religious artifacts of antiquity and our more recent epochs? I believe that the final answer to this might very well be the words of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (ref. in, “The Cosmological Symbolism in the Architecture of the Byzantine Church, p. 68):
“Classical art aimed at the inclusion of the infinite in the finite, Christian art sought to achieve the reverse; that is, to make the finite an allegory of the infinite. ”
- Porphyry, Against the Christians, THYRATHEN, Athens, Greece, 2000.
- Dion Chrisostom, On Kingdoms, KAKTOS, Athens, Greece, 1995
- George A. Prokopiou, The Cosmological Symbolism in the Architecture of the Byzantine Temple, PYRINOS KOSMOS, Athens, Greece, 1980.
- Panagiotis Marinis, The Pre-cataclysmic Civilization, NEA THESIS, Athens, Greece, 1998.
- The Key to Theosophy, http://blavatskyarchives.com/theosophypdfs.
- Mircea Eliade, Treatise on the History of the Ancient Religions, I. HADZINIKOLI, Athens, Greece, 1981.